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It's always hard when your first child goes off to camp or on an overnight trip. After all, a mother's job, second to doing laundry, is to worry. That first sleepover means a sleepless night: Will my daughter call me in the middle of the night? As an infant she could wail for my attention – now she has a cellphone.
A longer absence, several days away from home, might give a budding teenager precious freedom from the nagging parent whose constant refrain of "Pick your clothes off the floor FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!" is getting old. Time apart can be healthy – you learn to love your kids again when they're not under your nose. But getting away means resisting the urge to stay plugged in to each other, and not missing a new experience because you're too busy uploading it.
For example, my daughter went off on a much-anticipated winter visit to Quebec City. It would be four French-speaking days filled with dog sledding, ice skating and pulling maple taffy in the snow. She packed her bags and skates and, of course, her phone. Not more than 15 minutes after the bus left the school, I got the first text.
Buzz: A selfie, with her friend on the bus. Buzz: "We R on the Road!!" Buzz: "We R In Cornwall." Buzz: "We are in Quebec." Buzz: "RU Getting my texts???"
Until that point, I hadn't replied. After all, she wasn't seeking advice, or starting a conversation. She was just firing off statements with the disarming regularity of a human GPS.
Some parents might love this constant connectivity. It might make them feel safe to be able to contact their child quickly. After all, safety now comes in the form of an interface, a rectangle of glass and microchips, doesn't it? When I negotiated with my daughter as to the necessity of a phone, her main argument was security. (Although if you were in real trouble, say, being followed from school, the phone might be put to better use if you chucked it at the offender.)
We have lost something valuable by being so constantly connected, both on a superficial-LOL-Instagram level, and on a more substantial one.
I don't need to see selfies posted minute by minute. I can't afford that kind of data plan and, sorry kids, those selfies aren't that interesting. And with the death of film and the birth of digital photography, many of us have thousands of images stashed on cameras or long-lost memory sticks, from which we have no intention of making prints, either because most are of little artistic value or, more likely, their sheer number is overwhelming.
We're processing so much visual and verbal information these days that it threatens to consume us all. The real security issue is that our online existence may soon supersede our real one. Life – served up on Instagram and in texts demanding replies – flashes in front of us, providing little chance for us to really experience our experiences.
How many times have you seen images from concerts – a sea of arms extended in the air, not swaying as one to the music, but as human tripods filming the show? The audience isn't engaged in the communion of music; they're so busy making sure the band is in the frame, they miss the concert entirely. Until they upload it later.
Which brings me back to the ceaseless cellphone communication: Kids need time away from their parents, with minimal or no contact, to start the process of separation and development necessary to thrive as independent adults. It's painful in some respects. I remember my first days in a college dorm feeling very lonely indeed but I got through it, on my own, and I felt stronger because of it.
On an existential level, our early separations from our parents are rehearsals for their later, final, departure. We need that repeated practice – from sleepovers to summer camp to extended school trips to that first night in a college dorm – to become confident, independent, self-reliant adults.
But the cellphone has so elongated the umbilical cord that I fear children will remain children for far too many years, and parents will remain frozen as the anxious Big Brother lurking in the other room, plugged into the cellphone charger, an adult version of the baby monitor.
I know the time will come when I'll long for my daughter to call me every day. I know, too, that it happens all too quickly; that children grow up, move out and on with their own lives. After all, parenthood should be the one job where redundancy is the ultimate goal.
And while I hesitate to say it, I know that I will become "unnecessary" to my children. Yes, I'll miss their hands reaching for mine, for reassurance and guidance. But I know the painful reality is that I am teaching my children to get along without me – and I don't think they can do that by texting their daily lives, minute by minute.
That said, my daughter hasn't texted me today. I almost picked up the phone, but I took a deep breath instead.
Catherine Brennan lives in Toronto.